Signs and Symbols

How do Hindus use statues and other similar visual imagery in worship?

Sacred sculpture plays a central role in the overall symbolism of Hindu devotional ritual. Individual images (called vigraha, “something one can grasp”) of each of the major deities are generally of granite or marble, though some are made of other materials. Sculptors follow principles laid down in medieval texts that stipulate in detail the proportions and features essential for each deity. Some regard dark stone as the ideal medium because it suggests infinite power and mystery. Images are not themselves deities, but merely specific places in which the deity condescends to dwell for the benefit of devotees. When devotees lavish ritual attention on the images, they acknowledge the sacred symbolized there, rather than any power inherent in the material image. Each major temple image resides in a cavelike shrine called the “womb chamber” (garbha griha) that offers an essential clue to the metaphorical purpose of sacred sculpture: Images represent the dark mystery of divine fecundity from which all things emerge. Central to image-based ritual is the notion of darshan, seeing and being seen by the deity. In a manner analogous to Eastern Christian use of icons, Hindu practice interprets the eyes as the central visual symbol in the relationship between the devotee and the ultimate object of devotion. God sees the individual as surely as the devotee sees God. It is neither magic nor simple idolatry, but an acknowledgment of the fundamental human need to pray with all the senses. Images offer devotees something to hold on to, a way of understanding.


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